When Mass Incarceration Becomes Mass Murder


April 2020 will be the month when mass incarceration becomes mass murder in America: large-scale, foreseeable, preventable. Amidst all the tragedy that COVID-19 will inflict upon us, the reckless and avoidable deaths of tens of thousands of people in prisons, jails, and detention centers may be our nation’s greatest source of shame.


Right now, the virus is insinuating itself into every one of the nation’s 6,000 prisons, jails, and detention centers. It is arriving on the breath or bodies of employees arriving for work or of prisoners being booked in or returning from court. And because social distancing is impossible in these compressed worlds, every carceral institution will maximize the height of its own infection curve.


We’ve known for months that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) has up to a 2-week incubation period. New studies suggest that half of all people with the virus may be asymptomatic or presymptomatic and that over 80% of all infections may come from contact with individuals without symptoms. That means that even if a prison had space to isolate everyone who was symptomatic, that would not stop the spread of the virus. Essentially, we must assume that literally every single person who lives or works in our prisons, jails, or detention centers will be exposed to the virus over the next month and will become contagious.


Because of the steep infection rate, scarce medical resources inside a prison or jail will be exhausted in a matter of days, if not hours, as the disease manifests itself. Were hospitals willing to admit the sick and dying from prisons, prisoners would soon overwhelm those medical resources, too — even if they are not already overcapacity, which many will be. Once triage begins, most hospitals will deny admission to incarcerated patients, especially those over 65 and the disproportionate number of people in them who have pre-existing conditions that make it less likely they would survive anyway.


These are not predictions, they are facts. In prisons in regions farther along on their curve, we have already seen the virus’s terrifying proof-of-concept. By the beginning of April, Rikers Island already had 231 confirmed cases among people living in jail and nearly as many (223) among employees. Inmates were being offered $6/hour to bury the dead.


Noting that the rate of infection on Rikers and in other New York City jails was eight times higher than in the city itself, the Legal Aid Society declared, “New York City jails have become the epicenter of COVID-19.” Illinois’ infamous prison, Stateville, might dispute that title. There, so many men are sick that they have completely overwhelmed the local hospital, with many more cases awaiting at the prison. Hospital officials are demanding that sick prisoners be taken elsewhere. The director of the hospital fears that the death toll at the prison will exceed 100.

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